How many Wampanoags were on Nantucket when the first English settlers arrived in 1659?

Estimates vary greatly with general consensus being about 1,500 Nantucket Wampanoags in several groups governed by sachems.

Zaccheus Macy, Nantucket historian of the 1700s, placed the number at twice that. According to him, the number on the island in the mid 1600s was approximately three thousand. Archaeologist Elizabeth Little believed that he may have been correct for that moment in time. She thought it credible that Native peoples from the mainland fled to Nantucket to escape epidemics that had been raging all along the coast. These epidemics had been initiated by contact between native people and European explorers and fishermen. When the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth in 1620, they found the land deserted by people who had very recently lived there. Dr. Little, a specialist in the Native people of Nantucket, believed that the population of the island may have been inflated by the mid 1600s by survivors from the mainland.

Zacheus Macy (1713-1797) was the great-grandson of Thomas Macy and Sarah Hopcott Macy, who came to Nantucket in 1659. Although he was three generations removed from the first English settlers and could only know about the Native population at that time from accounts passed down orally, he had the advantage of speaking the Wampanoags’ language and had a close personal relationship with Wampanoag elders living during his time. His writing is the source of most of what we know about Nantucket Wampanoags, the names of their sachems, and the meaning of place names still in use today.

To learn more about Nantucket’s native people, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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